06/10/2011 02:40 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2011

Slaying Dragons, Wrestling God: Soldiers of Peace in Christian Symbolism

The motif of the Christian mission expressed by the figure of a soldier may be found throughout the New Testament and in the prayers and life of the Orthodox Church, as well as outside of it. The social service organization, the Salvation Army, is more or less built on the theme. Kierkegaard calls his peacemaker, who resolves to bring peace to the conflict (or paradox) of faith and impossibility, a "knight of faith". In the Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul also describes the Christian soldier's armor in spiritual terminology.

The imagery calls upon the discipline and tools of real soldiers, who manifest a spirit of seriousness and sobriety. In Orthodox baptism, we are not only brought forth from darkness into light, passing over from the tomb to the womb (per St. Cyril of Jersusalem), but we are also enlisted as soldiers of Christ. There is no indication however, that this imagery may justify the use of violence or coercion in the name of the Gospel, the Crusades in the name of Christ, or bombing enemies in order to safeguard corporate greed in the name of family values. Jesus commands Christians to love enemies. We are called, as Paul writes to his spiritual son, Timothy, to fight the good fight of faith. St John Chrysostom notes that the war the Christian soldier fights is a spiritual one, against forces that are not made of flesh and blood.

In both the Western and Eastern churches, we have the image of a soldier in the person of St. George, who is known for slaying a dragon, a metaphor for the courage of a real man who proclaimed his fidelity to Christ during the persecution of Diocletan, and whose subsequent martyrdom through decapitation encouraged other Christians. His bravery was so much an encouragement that within a few hundred years his story was told describing him as a brave soldier who slew a dragon. By standing against the world of mammon and power which the state demanded he worship, and proclaiming his own faith and refusal to worship them, St. George wrestled against the "invisible dragons", the principalities and powers which Paul references, which included his own will to live and his fear as well. The dragons lay slain through the courage and comfort that arose as a result of his martyrdom.

In the western literary canon there is an archetypical symbol of heroic warfare in the knight Parsifal, who also battles dragons. The story of Parsifal is part of the epic Grail myth, and a first reading of it is reminiscent of a situation comedy. Parsifal is a type of holy fool in King Arthur's court, a Knight who grows from extreme naivety to acts of heroism. As a child, his mother is intensely overprotective, and does not allow him to know anything about the world to such a degree that when he first comes across knights in their shiny armor, he believes they are angels. He is instantly attracted to them, and resolves almost immediately to become a knight himself, much to his mother's heartbreak and chagrin.

One of the key factors to consider regarding the story of Parsifal's journey to knighthood, whereupon he must conquer knights and slay dragons, is that according to some of the interpreters of the story, he never kills other human beings, with one exception, the red knight. This leads some to suggest that the story serves as a meaningful tale about an interior fight within the psyche, and that the dragons Parsifal slays represents interior complexes that either cause him to stagnate or to regress -- tendencies that prevent him from ever having any hope of becoming a true knight and a whole man.

According to the popular psychoanalyst, Robert A. Johnson, when Parsifal fights dragons he is battling against his own complexes, particularly his desire to regress into the safety of the protectiveness his mother once offered. One might extract from the story the symbolic warfare we are called to as Christians against cowardice, regression, the need for safety, and especially against fear, which is the enemy of love and therefore of peace. We especially need to fight against fear and the cowardice it enables in us if we have the tendency to conflate comfort with peace.

We want to be comfortable, secure, all of our cultural responsibilities taken care of, and if we reach certain plateaus, we might think of the subsequent satisfaction as consisting of what it means to be at peace. But the role of the peacemaker is not necessarily to make others feel comfortable if it is at the expense of a deeper conflict. There are times when we may be tempted to believe the lie that ignorance is bliss, and in affluent cultures we have huge media outlets which are built upon an economy of advertising that wants us to believe that very notion, and is keyed to keeping us ignorant, satiated and always wanting more.

Peace must be devoted to truth, and it takes courage to slay dragons when they rage inside us and represent in us the things to which we cling when we are filled with fear, insecurity, cowardice and alienation. The peacemaker as a soldier of Christ fights the battle against interior dragons, and begins to experience true, authentic peace when they are slain.

The symbol of a soldier also speaks to a type of spiritual violence which may be signified by the image of Jacob wrestling with an angel. We seek our spiritual blessings from God in prayer with an effort and commitment that resembles the work of an intense fight, and in the end, God changes us. He injures us, or exposes our wound, so that we may be healed. If we repress our doubts, we may become victims to false certainties. If we hide, we cannot be rescued. If there are no symptoms of the disease, it may progress, hidden, until death overcomes us.

The poet, Rilke, composed the following poem which indirectly speaks to me about this aspect of our relationship with God, titled, The Man Watching:

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can't bear without a friend,
I can't love without a sister

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestler of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler's sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

Whatever Rilke had in mind, it's good for me and encouraging to remind myself that wrestling, the struggle with difficulties, with doubt, with conflict, with poverty, with meekness, with prayer and with God is a transformational fight. It is the fight of a soldier, as per St. Paul. And as in the Rilke poem, my own failures, or those things that we tend to see as weaknesses (such as poverty or meekness) in Christ and through the grace of God are transformed into the blessings that Jesus describes. On the other hand, the small things in which my ego, or selfish ambitions, or small comforts, win, are small victories that reduce me to their miniscule level. Who is the victor, the aggressive person who is agile at feats of one-upmanship? Or the person who loses because he does not play the game, but whose heart is single and full of virtue? When wrestling with God, it is somehow honorable to consider each loss a true win.

This interior combat -- striving for God and in so doing actually wrestling with God, as well as fighting against my own passions and proclivities, is the meaning of asceticism. Being a true peacemaker therefore has to do with being at peace within ourselves, which is a peace that comes from God.

This is a revised, truncated version of my latest podcast, Seeking Peace, at Ancient Faith Radio. the full version can be heard here.